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Zeroing in on the best lightweight Linux distro is something of a personal mission for me. That said, I'll be the first to acknowledge that what works for me might not be a perfect match for you.
To better address the lightweight distro needs for everyone, I've crafted this article to provide distro options that are the best of the lightweight variety, but also cross different user types.
Puppy Linux - Best Lightweight Distro
In terms of simply being an amazing lightweight distro, Puppy Linux is in a class all its own. Puppy Linux can run PCs as old as Pentium 1 class. Puppy runs well on a CD/DVD or a flash drive. And if you decide you want a persistent install, you can add "persistence" to the live instance on the aforementioned flash drive.
Benefits of using Puppy Linux?
- Runs on just about anything, from very old hardware to newer PCs.
- Important software pre-installed with anything else you might need available from the Puppy package installer.
- Incredibly small footprint for older PCs and comes in a small 200MB ISO image.
- Easily customizable both on the desktop or as a remastered ISO for your own needs.
Downsides of using Puppy Linux?
- Default window manager is JWM. This isn’t a bad thing from a resource usage viewpoint, however it gives off a dated feel.
- Puppy Linux's security model is usually misunderstood. The single user root environment is not meant to be like a traditional distro. Puppy also uses a unionfs/aufs stacking file system designed to keep all but the most recent altered files as read only.
- Puppy Linux is best when used as a live environment with a persistence option provided. It's not at its best as an installed Linux distro. While it can be installed, it's usually not installed correctly and this leads to confusion.
Should you use Puppy Linux?
If you own an older PC that is 32bit, runs other lightweight environments with great difficulty and you need the machine to be operational, then yes, I highly recommend it.
For everyone else, I would point out that there are other great distros to consider first before setting on Puppy as your best lightweight Linux distro.
PIXEL - Best Lightweight Distro
For many, the Raspberry Pi has changed the way we look at Linux computing. It's cheap, built with hardware hackers and creators in mind. But the Pi's main Linux distro isn't the most amazing desktop Linux experience available. PIXEL for the Pi however, is pretty rock solid.
PIXEL might be the ultimate lightweight Linux distro for the Raspberry Pi. It's light on resources while still providing a rich in appearance operating system for those who demand more from their desktop experience.
Benefits of using PIXEL?
- You're provided with the same developer-friendly experience found with Raspbian, but PIXEL is better suited as a desktop operating system.
- Still running Raspbian behind the scenes, PIXEL provides a clean splash screen in place of Raspbian cryptic boot-up messages.
- PIXEL comes with 16 stock images that not only make for a great desktop wallpaper, but also provides EXIF data that share where each photo was taken.
- The provided PIXEL icons strike a balance between good enough for business, without being overly boring to look at.
- The default fonts for PIXEL are outstanding right out of the box.
Downsides of using PIXEL?
- Requires a Raspberry Pi, unless you're going with the x86 version.
- If you opt for the x86 version, you'll find distros better suited for desktop usage by skipping PIXEL. Don't misunderstand, PIXEL is great. But it's not going to replace other well-established distros like Ubuntu or Mint for desktop x86/64bit users.
Should you use PIXEL?
Running on PIXEL makes a lot of sense for anyone trying to use a Pi as a desktop computer. PIXEL does a fine job at balancing performance with appearance on the Raspberry Pi. However if you are thinking of using PIXEL on something not Pi related, then you might be better off looking for one of the other Linux distros listed in this article.
Linux Lite – Best Lightweight Distro
Linux Lite is a fantastic distro for anyone looking for the lightweight desktop found with Xubuntu, but using an LTS release and a bit more polish out of the box. Just the fact that Linux Lite focuses on using a LTS model is of huge benefit to anyone who values a "just works" type of experience.
Linux Lite also comes with Lite specific tools for managing and updating your Linux Lite system. Similar to how Linux Mint created distro specific tools for its own needs, Lite created its tool set with the lightweight distro in mind.
Benefits of using Linux Lite?
- It's fast and looks great.
- Rock solid user manual. Each step of any given how-to is bundled with helpful images.
- Dedicated support forums. With Xubuntu, you're looking at using the Ubuntu support forums for help. With Linux Lite, you have the benefit of using a dedicated forum community filled with Linux Lite enthusiasts.
Downsides of Linux Lite?
The only downside is that it's lacking the financial infrastructure (support) seen with other distros. Should the development team hit hard times, this could potentially impact its development.
Should you use Linux Lite?
If I was looking to get someone off of Windows XP and onto something better suited for an older computer, Linux Lite would indeed be a contender. It provides a solid user experience for all user levels yet still makes itself approachable to brand new Linux users.
I also love how Linux Lite provides an active/inactive status indicator on their website for their software repository and website features. It's this level of thoughtfulness that really aims to impress.
The best Lightweight Distro Is?
Of the lightweight Linux distros above, which one provides the best experience for an older PC? In terms of pure performance, Puppy Linux easily wins that race. In terms of running a lightweight distro on your Pi? PIXEL is most certainly the clear winner there.
But in terms of which disto is the overall winner? That one has to goto Linux Lite. It's an LTS based distro that provides an outstanding experience minus the extra resource usage. In my mind, that makes Linux Lite the winner.
What say you? Do you feel some of the more advanced lightweight distros make for a better option? Perhaps you know of a lesser know lightweight distro that needs to be shared? Hit the comments, tell me about it.